Later that evening, Penelope had been relieved to near-tears to see the bags she had left behind on the Grimwood docks, which Steph had returned to the Sisters.
Penelope had squealed in delight and given Steph a bone-crunching hug, which he’d endured with grace and flushed cheeks until Sister Heely had coughed and muttered something about propriety.
“Like you’re one to talk about propriety,” Sister Rosin had accused with a smug smirk. “Remember that one time when—”
“Anyone for more tea?” Sister Heely had asked, almost shouting, as she clapped a hand over Sister Rosin’s mouth while Steph and Penelope snickered into their tea cups.
Penelope slept soundly that night, tucked finally into the warmth of her own bed. Marmot, Marmalade and Steph slept downstairs in borrowed night clothes and rollout mats of down, which the Sisters had dug out of a cupboard.
She woke early the next morning as the dawn light glinted from silver clouds, feeling thoroughly rested. While still a little stiff, the sharp ache from her joints had eased almost completely. Penelope donned her slippers and padded to the window, basking in the forest landscape.
This deep into winter, all the foliage was varying shades of gold and rich mauve. Ice clung to the undersides of boughs and small birds hopped amongst the branches. Snow blanketed the forest floor as curling mist obscured the distance. The scent of cold earth and damp leaves permeated the frigid air. Invigorated, Penelope tiptoed downstairs so as not to wake anyone, making her way to the bathing room for a wash, and then the kitchen for some tea.
Steph was already seated at the table nursing a steaming cup when she reached the open doorway. His head of dark curls was tousled from sleep and he was once again wearing one of Penelope’s night gowns, though the dark blue fabric was several measures too short in the sleeves.
Steph was staring out the kitchen window, lost in thought. His olive skin was smooth in the wan light, and his heavy brows were knitted in contemplation. He looked beautiful, Penelope thought with a flutter in her chest as she watched him for a moment. Steph turned to her as she stepped further into the room, his eyes lighting with a warm smile.
“Good morning,” Penelope yawned as she refilled the kettle and stoked the stove fire. “Did you sleep well?”
“Like royalty,” Steph replied with a mischievous grin. Penelope laughed, feeling bashful.
“I’m not really royalty,” she confessed with a sigh. “I mean I am, of course, in title and such,” she hastened to add when Steph cocked his head in confusion, “but I don’t often feel like it, living out here.”
That thought had always caused Penelope a pang of grief. The sense of displacement from her home and family, dwelling in the forest, not truly belonging anywhere.
“That used to distress me,” Penelope murmured as she poured her tea and took a seat at the table.
“Something changed?” Steph quizzed with a tilt of his head. Though his tone was mild, Steph’s eyes burned with curiosity.
Penelope looked at him, then out the window at the winter blooms swaying in the planter box. She could feel the presence of the forest beyond, almost like a song deep within her bones.
“Since my… adventure,” Penelope scoffed at herself, “I feel more connected with the woods. It’s…” Penelope looked down into the amber liquid of her cup, trying to gather the right words.
“Like it calls out to you?” Steph finished. Penelope glanced up, nodding.
“I feel that too, sometimes,” Steph continued, idly spinning his cup between his hands. “I hate being cooped up inside for too long, surrounded by dead wood and stone. It feels too much like… a tomb.” Steph frowned down at the table. “When I’m on my own in the woods, and I can just sit, and think, and write… it feels like I can breathe again…” He trailed off, shaking his head at himself and smiling with exaggerated humour. “Not that tombs aren’t fun places to be. No offence to tombs. You get to meet some… lively characters.”
Penelope laughed, smothering the sound with the back of her hand. Steph looked up, meeting her incredulous gaze before glancing away with an uncomfortable smile, ruffling his hair.
“I know what you mean,” Penelope assured Steph. “I mean, not about tombs, that’s the most unusual thing I’ve ever heard.” Penelope smirked at Steph as he winced and rubbed his face with a self-deprecating smile.
“I mean out here… I feel at home here now in a way I never quite have before. I’ve always felt like a visitor in the Faewood. Living here was meant to be temporary. Or so I’d always assumed…” Penelope licked her lips, feeling suddenly uncertain. She had indeed always thought her stay in the Faewood would come to an end once she had finally, somehow lived up to the mysterious expectations her parents had seemingly set for her. And yet… “Now I’m not sure I want to leave, not really.” She said the last words with a whisper, and shivered with the shock of her own admission.
Steph gazed at her, his brow creased in empathy. “Do you have to?” he asked softly.
“I… don’t know. I don’t want the Sisters to be stuck out here forever, not on my account. And there’s the Dark Moon Ball at Grimwood Fort in just a few weeks…”
“I’ve heard a little about that,” Steph smirked. “It’s all the royal kitchen staff have been talking of for ages.”
“You work in the kitchens there?” Penelope asked with a sip of her tea, savouring the flavours of oak and syrup.
Steph shrugged with a flippant wave of his hand. “I help out, from time to time.”
Penelope nodded, tapping absently at the side of her cup.
“You know for years I’ve been desperate to be invited to some grand royal party like the Dark Moon Ball. To get back to the life I always dreamed I was meant for. Living in Starwood Palace… falling for a prince and marrying my one true love… one day ruling the land with grace and benevolence…” Penelope twisted her mouth in a self-mocking smile, shaking her head.
Steph quirked a lip. “Sounds like a lovely sort of fairy tale.”
Penelope laughed. “I think that’s all it is, really. Part of me still wants that dream…” And she did. She yearned to see her family again. She ached to be free of her… exile. Penelope winced as she thought the word, but there was scarcely another way to describe her situation.
She glanced up at Steph, whose eyes were filled with questions, but he remained quiet as Penelope spilled her thoughts. “I do wish to return, at least for the Sisters’ sakes. Just… not quite as much for myself as I once did.”
Steph was quiet, frowning in thought as he digested Penelope’s confessions. At last he smiled.
“Who needs a prince anyway, eh?” Steph said with a grin. “I hear they’re much more trouble than they’re worth.”
Penelope laughed at the unexpected levity. “Is that so? Well that’s certainly been true of a fair few princes I’ve met. Princesses as well.” Penelope blew out a sigh as she recalled past confrontations with Princess Ivy and her friends. “I’ve never met a prince of Grimwood though, I’m sure they’re all perfectly wonderful.”
“Oh, no, they’re the worst of the lot, I’m sure,” Steph laughed.
Penelope raised her eyebrows. “You’ve met them? Grimwood seem a rather mysterious House from what I’ve heard.”
“I’ve seen one or two,” Steph answered airily. “Poncing about on their horses, all dressed in their fancy dress. Thieving food from the kitchens when the poor cooks are just trying to work. Proper fools, the lot of them,” Steph finished with a nod, grinning as though the matter was settled.
Penelope laughed out loud, biting down on her fist to stifle the noise. “I’m sure they can’t be as bad as that. In fact, I’ll bet they’re all terribly charming,” Penelope teased. “And handsome and kind, with the very fanciest of fancy dress.” Penelope pretended to fan herself in a swoon as Steph guffawed.
“What’s got the two of you in a ruckus this morning, then?” Sister Rosin stomped into the room with a wide stretch and mouth-smacking yawn.
“Sorry,” Penelope said between giggles. “We were just discussing princes.”
“Sweet, wonderful princes with excellent wardrobes—”
“Thieving, smelly princes stealing from the kitchens—”
“Smelly?!” Penelope cried through her laughter, clutching her stomach.
“Believe me, a prince after eating roast garlic is sure to be as pungent as anyone else would be.”
Steph and Penelope dissolved into gasping fits, slumping sideways in their seats as Sister Rosin watched on, amused.
“Children, the pair of you,” Sister Rosin mocked as she set about stewing porridge for breakfast.
Sister Heely joined them in the kitchen soon after, followed by Marmalade and Marmot.
“So, young Steph, shall we get you off home today, then? I’ll escort you in the cart back to Grimwood Village,” Sister Rosin offered while they ate.
Steph nodded his thanks, though didn’t seem terribly enthused by the idea.
“May I come, too?” Penelope asked.
“Absolutely not!” the Sisters said in unison. “You can stay here, safe and sound with Heely, thank you very much,” Sister Rosin added as Penelope pouted, but did not protest.
“Well, can I at least go out into the forest and restock some of our empty jars?” Penelope ventured, eager to get back out into the woods and amongst the trees.
After a shared glance with each other, in which Sister Heely raised an eyebrow, and Sister Rosin lifted a shoulder, they seemed to reach an accord. “Alright, but don’t wander very far, please,” Sister Heely demanded with a piercing glare. Penelope placed a hand over her heart and made a show of solemn contrition.
“Oh, that sounds much more fun, may I tag along?” Steph asked, sitting eagerly in his chair.
“Yes, that’ll be wonderful! I can show you the ticklish oak, and the feathered willow, and—”
“I’d rather like to see those things myself,” Marmalade mused.
“It might be too late for me to take you home and make it back again if you go romping about the forest…” Sister Rosin hedged.
“I understand… Might I stay another night?” Steph asked. The Sisters hesitated. “Though, of course, I don’t wish to impose if I’ll be a bother,” Steph added. The corners of his mouth turned down, eyes sad and pleading as the silence lengthened.
Sister Rosin snapped first, reaching across the table to cup his cheeks in both hands. “Oh alright, I can’t say no to that face!”
Steph grinned, his cheeks rounding in Sister Rosin’s grasp. Sister Heely raised her eyes skyward, but didn’t actually seem displeased. Penelope clapped her hands, and Marmalade smirked at Steph’s antics. Marmot scampered about their feet, excited by the general atmosphere of glee.